The Trail is the Teacher is Clay Bonnyman Evans’ episodic account of his 2016 Appalachian Trail thru hike.
Patches and I had been the sole occupants at Cornelius Creek Shelter (mile 764.4) the night before, except for one late-arriving and unfortunately, chain-smoking, SOBO.
A night of solid rain made for a hot, humid — but thankfully, net downhill — morning, and as usual, Patches had gotten out front. I crossed the James River Foot Bridge (mile 784.1), “the longest foot-only bridge on the AT,” according to Awol, that’s also named after the late AT hiker and volunteer Bill Foot—around 2 p.m. Patches had left me a hastily scribbled not to say he’d hitched into Glasgow.
I had a decision to make. Patches was going to wait at the parking area to meet his brother Ben and several friends for a few days of hiking, and he’d already let me know he’d be cutting his miles while they were together. If I obeyed the impatient demon whispering in one ear, this would be it. The fellowship would be broken.
I shut the little devil down and decided to wait for my friend; I not only wanted to see him again, but didn’t want him to have to wait by himself. After spreading my sweat-soaked clothes and shoes on rocks, I reclined on my Z-lite pad to soak up warm sunlight after all those wet days.
Patches was back within the hour and we spent a fine last afternoon together. Like most other AT hikers, we ignored the warning signs and enjoyed a couple of 20 feet plunges from the footbridge into the cool green waters of the river below, lolled nearly naked in the sunshine, and ate. Patches had brought me a nice IPA and some candy, and two older women, alarmed by our scrawny frames, gave us soda and an unopened 14.3-oz. package of peanut butter Oreos. We ate the whole thing.
Just one other hiker came by in my five hours by the river, perhaps because so many people had made the pilgrimage back to Damascus for Trail Days. Candyman, coach of the rowing team at Williams College in Massachusetts, told me he was about ready to bail off the trail.
“I’m just lonely,” he said. “I didn’t expect that.”
It was a fine afternoon, but when Patches’ brother still hadn’t arrived by 7:30, I decided to hike to Johns Hollow Shelter (mile 786) to make dinner and get ready for the next day. I found Candyman’s tent and invited him to join the party when Patches arrived with his new crew, but he declined. It was dark by the time they rolled in, and I enjoyed the company (as well as more Oreos) only for an hour before heading to bed.
But it wasn’t a great night. Tiny noseeums found their way inside my sleeping bag and my stomach grumbled and groaned all night. I had tossed away caution a couple of days before and started drinking untreated water from mountaintop springs and creeks, per the advice of famous AT curmudgeon Warren Doyle, but now I wondered if I’d made a mistake. Or maybe it was just that I’d eaten three-quarters of a pound of Oreos and drank a Pabst Blue Ribbon in addition to the earlier IPA.
I woke early and was ready to go before the sun had peeked into the hollow. I tapped Patches on the shoulder and gave him him 147 pages of my Awol guide, which I’d torn apart at page 76. It was the least I could do upon saying farewell to an unexpected friend who had made these past several weeks the best I’d ever spent on trail.
“I’m so glad I got to hike with you,” I said as he gave me a sleepy embrace. “You are a good man.”
I turned and walked to the trail without looking back. I was solo again.
The air was muggy and I felt feverish as I slogged 2,000 feet up to Big Rocky Row, then followed a long, meandering ridgeline with an expansive view of forest to the east. Walking along the shore of a pond in the afternoon, I spooked several deer, spied a rattlesnake and felt a thrill as I passed an 800-mile marker crafted by hikers from small stones.
I made good time, hoping to beat a wet cold front predicted to arrive by mid-afternoon. The air was still and full of portents as I passed Brown Mountain Creek Shelter (mile 804.3), but I decided I had time to tackle a 2,400-foot EoDMoFo to the summit of Bald Knob, where I planned to camp, before the rain hit. I also was eager to catch up to Wanderer, a correspondent for the Sounds of the Trail podcast, who I knew had to be just in front of me, based on shelter logbooks.
When I hit U.S. 60 less than two miles later, a hard, cold rain had begun to fall. Two bedraggled hikers stood mournfully next to a rail sign, trying to stay dry. But I wasn’t going to backtrack two miles to the shelter, so on I marched miserably on.
Long, wet, cold crank up a mountain with too many fucking false summits. My forearms are freezing again! Fuck! I scribbled in my journal that night. And I never did see Wanderer, who had been smarter than I and bailed into town ahead of the storm. But I would meet him eventually.
The rain gave way to a bitterly cold wind by the time I reached the summit which (as Awol had warned, had I only bothered to look) was not a bald at all. A tangle of thick undergrowth put flight to any thought of pitching a tent, and I was forced to continue.
Like many thru hikers, I am not fond of “sideways miles”—any hiking that does not keep you moving up the trail. When I came to the sign for Cow Camp Gap Shelter (mile 810.5) I groaned: It was six-tenths of a mile off trail, but now I had no choice. This day wasn’t quite as bad as Cinco de Freeze-o a week earlier, but if I didn’t get out of my wet clothes and into a sleeping bag soon I’d find myself staring down the big H—hypothermia—again.
I muttered curses when I approached the shelter and saw at least a dozen people milling around; with my frozen, sloth-like fingers, I doubted I could even pitch my tent. In foul weather, hikers will usually find room for everyone, and fortunately for me, the entire crowd was made up of a Boy Scout troop on its way down the mountain. Eventually another guy, Skibo, strung his hammock in the shelter — widely considered a faux pas, but since only two other section hikers showed up, it didn’t matter.
Rain lashed the roof on and off throughout the night, driven by a maniacal wind. The air was bone-cracking cold by the time I woke in the dim dawn. There was ice on the trail and for the first time since the Smokys in March, I had to wear all my cold-weather gear to hike. The sun emerged by noon, but a biting wind forced me to stay bundled all day. It didn’t help that my food supply had dwindled to almost nothing, and all those Oreo calories had long ago been been burned up in my body’s furnace.
By early afternoon I reached the 3,885-foot summit of The Priest. Just before that, I stopped to eat a few meager calories at The Priest Shelter (mile 827.3), where it is a longstanding tradition for hikers to “make a confession” in the logbook. Flipping through, I found more candor and fewer jokes than I’d anticipated: hikers confessing that they really were bums, on the trail (shhhh!) because they didn’t want to be working; many meas culpa about lax bear precautions (“I haven’t hung a bear back since the Smokys”); violations of Leave No Trace principles—“I don’t actually dig every cat hole six inches deep!”; admissions of yellow- or blue-blazing; and more.
“No confession for me,” I wrote, in no mood for either jest or candor. “My Catholic days are over.”
But The Priest seemed to bless me when a woman named Virginia Creeper and her daughter Kiwi stopped for lunch. Like me, they planned to descend to the Tye River, then climb the first third of a 3,000-foot ascent to Three Ridges Mountain before stopping at Harpers Creek Shelter, where they said they’d be happy to share some extra food with me.
Tumbling tiredly down a steep, rocky, rooty, 3,000-foot descent to the river, my nose ran like a faucet, necessitating constant farmer blowing and loud honking into a bandana. About two-thirds the way down, I rounded a curve to find two day hikers peering out over the gorgeous, sunlit Tye River Valley.
“Was that you making all that racket away up in the woods?” the older man said in a British accent. “Surely your mother didn’t teach you to blow like that?”
“Aye, mate, she did do,” I said in a faux accent.
“Are you from England then?”
“Nope,” I drawled, smiling at the memory of all those ridiculous exchanges with Patches. “Just like to talk in fake accents.”
“Eh, well, you’re not that good,” the guy said.
“Fooled you for a minute there.”
“Nah,” he said, grinning. “I was just momentarily stunned by all your honking.”
The 1,000-foot EoDMoFo and short, rocky descent to Harpers Creek Shelter (mile 834.3) were a tough end to a long, battering day. On the way up I passed an older woman who was clearly struggling on the steep trail and a younger hiker urging her forward. When I reached the shelter, a solemn young thru hiker named Kaio asked if I’d seen them.
A good two hours after I arrived, the two women came into camp. The younger, Nikei, immediately dropped her pack, and headed back the way she’d come: She had carried Kaio’s Aunty Grace’s pack and now was returning to retrieve her own. Aunty Grace couldn’t stop talking about how steep the trail was. A chatty young woman, Debbie, also had joined thru hikers Kaio and Nikei for a week on the trail, anticipating her own future thru hike.
These two solemn, religious young women had been hiking together since Springer, and now they were slowing down to spend a few days with Aunty Grace and Debbie.
“It’s what you do for friends and family, right?” Kaio said.
When I woke early the next morning I was exhausted, sniffling and feeling lonely. But my food bag was now literally empty—Virginia Creeper and Kiwi had never arrived—and with another nasty cold front predicted for the next day, I decided to push all the way to town. With some 5,000 feet of climbing and 27 miles ahead of me, it would be a long, brutal day.
Better than starving in freezing rain, I wrote.
I was glad I’d had the good sense to knock out a third of the steep, grinding climb up Three Ridges Mountain. The sun played peekaboo as I steadily made my way up a series of switchbacks, but the air remained cool. Pushing hard, I managed to make the last 2,000 feet to the summit in just over an hour, happy to have knocked out the day’s big climb.
But once again—and not for the last time—I learned the painful lesson that just because Awol’s elevations look like smooth-sailing, it doesn’t mean they are. The five miles of the AT from Reeds Gap along the western shoulder of Humpback Mountain offer a harsh little preview of Pennsylvania’s notorious rocks. There is little net elevation gain or loss, but the tread is almost entirely made up of blocky, mossy, slippery rock. The trail dips and rises constantly, six feet here, 12 feet there, making it all but impossible to get into any kind of rhythm. The final climb up to Humpback is more of the same, only steeper. There are gorgeous views here and there—it’s still Virginia, after all—but for much of the way, it’s green-tunnel city.
Just Charlie, a section hiker I would meet far up the trail, told me it wasn’t always this way. He began hiking the AT in 1970 and 46 years later, was about to finish.
“There used to be a lot more road walking, and crossing farms and pastures,” he told me. “But over the years, they have rerouted the trail to a ridge every time they get the chance, on the theory that roads and farms aren’t ‘wilderness.’ But I loved those parts of the trail; when you are hiking the whole thing, or long sections, you don’t always need to be on a ridgetop or in the middle of the woods.”
I, along with most other hikers I’ve met, agree with Just Charlie. There are other factors at play—for example, routing the trail through public lands to the greatest extent possible—but I suspect that trail designers over the years have not had thru hikers in mind when rerouting the AT. And where I imagine many weekend hikers find road walks or farm fields dull and domestic, they are a welcome break from ridges, climbs and green tunnels for a thru hiker.
But magic often appears when you need it most, and as I approached the summit of Humpback I came upon a couple eating on a rocky promontory. It was Bombadil and Goldberry, parents of Legs and Verge, the sisters I’d camped with in the apple orchard after Unaka Mountain. Taking pity on poor, starving Pony, they gave me an orange, a Clif bar and some jerky to fuel my last 10 miles into Rockfish Gap.
Even so, my head throbbed and my stomach growled with hunger through that long afternoon. I could hear the alien hiss of traffic for an hour before I finally staggered up a few rocky steps into the gap late that afternoon. I called Stanimal’s hostel down in Waynesboro; they’d pick me up in about 15 minutes. My feet felt like they’d been beaten with cement-filled rubber hoses all day and I was high with exhaustion.
“You look like you could use some magic,” said a burly young guy who approached. “Come over here to my car.”
Loopily wondering if he might be a serial killer—or a proselytizer—and which would be worse—I followed him anyway. If he’d proffered a possum he’d scraped off the highway I might have eaten it at that point. Instead, he opened a back door and pulled out two broad, flat cardboard boxes. Pizza.
“You know, I came up here to do magic this afternoon, but you’re the first hiker I’ve seen. So take as much as you want.”
I mumbled thank you and began pushing a slice into my face, chomping and gulping it with slow deliberation, the way a desert tortoise scarfs down lettuce. If the guy was a killer, and the pizza was poisoned, I thought, it wasn’t such a bad way to go. Not after that day.
But after four pieces, I was still standing. They guy stuffed four more slices into a plastic bag and handed it to me. He asked my name. We fist bumped. He drove off. I wandered down to the bright-yellow King’s Gourmet Popcorn truck, where I was supposed to wait for the shuttle, and drank a Dr. Pepper in a single, long slug. It all seemed a little unreal. I’d come so far, but now I was getting off. I’d made good friends, and walked away from them all.
“You look beat. Are you a thru hiker?” the woman in the popcorn truck asked.
I had walked 39.33% of the Appalachian Trail but that wasn’t enough. I was going into exile in the World, but I’d be right back here in late June.
“I didn’t know I was when I started,” I said, “but yeah, I am.”
“Then you,” she said, “get one of these.”
She handed me a green rubber wristband reading, APPALACHIAN TRAIL — GEORGIA TO MAINE.